Retro Television Reviews: Half Nelson 1.9 “Beverly Hills Princess”

Welcome to Retro Television Reviews, a new feature where we review some of our favorite and least favorite shows of the past! On Fridays, I will be reviewing Half Nelson, which ran on NBC from March to May of 1985. Almost all nine of the show’s episodes can be found on YouTube!

Today, we close the book on the adventures of Rocky Nelson in Beverly Hills.

Episode 1.9 “Beverly Hills Princess”

(Dir by Bernard McEveety, originally aired on May 10th, 1985)

The hottest new thing in Beverly Hills is a movement called Emotional Awareness.  Led by the slick Dexter Breen (played by Marjoe Gortner, who was himself a former child evangelist) EA is a self-improvement cult that definitely should not be mistaken for Scientology.  Not surprisingly, EA is a scam.  Dexter and his people encourage the rich and the powerful to confess all of their secrets during “Awareness Sessions” and then use those secrets to blackmail their followers.

Businessman George Farrell (Dick Van Patten) is sick of being blackmailed.  However, when George tries to confront Dexter, he gets into a struggle with one of Dexter’s goons.  The goon has a gun, which goes off.  Fear not, George is not wounded.  However, he is arrested for murder when the goon drops dead.  Because George doesn’t want to admit that Dexter was blackmailing over him over an affair he had with a congresswoman, George finds himself sitting in prison.

Fortunately, George Farrell is a client of Beverly Hills Security!  After being approached by George’s 14 year-old daughter, Leslie (Sydney Penny), Rocky (Joe Pesci, who was shorter than Sydney Penny) makes it his mission to prove that George didn’t mean to kill anyone.  To do this, he’ll visit two more of Dexter’s victims (played, in this week’s cameos, by Rich Little and Lyle Waggoner).  He’ll also steal several cars, including a police car.  Why is Rocky stealing cars?  Because he keeps wrecking them, of course!  Detective Hamill (Gary Grubbs) isn’t happy about all of the wrecked cars.  When he demands to know why Chester (Fred Williamson) keeps Rocky employed despite all of Rocky’s mishaps, Chester replies, “Because he cares!”

As usual, Rocky recruits Beau (Dick Butkus), Kurt (Bubba Smith), and Annie (Victoria Jackson) to help him out.  When Rocky discovers that one of Dexter’s victims is holding auditions for a drag revue, Rocky decides that Annie should audition.  “But I’m a real woman!” Annie replies.  At this point, I was expecting thing to get pretty cringey but, by the standards of when the show was produced, the whole drag revue subplot was handled with maturity and with a relative lack of cheap jokes.  I sat there dreading the moment that Bubba Smith and Dick Butkus would put on ball gowns and start speaking in falsetto but it didn’t happen.  Instead, they just mentioned how talented all of the performers were.  It was pretty clear that the director of the revue was being blackmailed because he was gay but, again in contrast to a lot of shows and movies from the period, both the show and Rocky treated the character with respect.  It was an unexpected moment in a show that many would probably dismiss as just being another generic detective series.

While Rocky is stealing cars, Dean Martin is searching for his.  No, Rocky didn’t steal Dean’s car.  According to Dean, Sammy Davis, Jr. stole it.  In this episode, Dean shares all of his scenes with Fred Williamson.  Because this was Half Nelson‘s final episode, this was also Dean Martin’s last onscreen moment.  Dean passed away ten years later.

Yes, this was indeed the final episode of Half Nelson.  In fact, towards the end of the episode, Rocky crashes Chester’s car and then comments that he’s probably going to get fired as a result.  Since this was the final episode, I guess we can assume that, once George got out of prison, Rocky was unemployed and on the next flight back to New York City.  I hope he got to take the dog with him.

As for the episode itself, it wasn’t a bad way to wrap things up.  Everyone got to do something.  Chester defended Rocky, for once.  Victoria Jackson got to sing a song.  Joe Pesci got one final chance to make a joke about his height, snapping that he was “5’4,” when he heard a report that a car had been stolen by a man standing “5’2.”  Dean Martin was clearly unwell during filming but he still had a devilish twinkle in his eye.  As always, Marjoe Gortner was a good villain.  On the negative side, Rocky didn’t so much solve the mystery as he just stumbled into solutions and Detective Hamill’s intense dislike of Rocky never made any sense.  As well, Hamill and Annie were dating in the previous episode but they barely even acknowledged each other in this one, which leads me to suspect that this episode was originally meant to air earlier than it did.

Having now watched the entire show, it’s easy to see why Half Nelson failed to attract a regular audience, despite it’s strong pilot.  The show never really found the right balance between comedy and drama and, far too often, it turned into a retread of Beverly Hills Cop.  The ensemble often felt underused, with Jackson and Williamson spending far too much of their time sitting in the office.  The show had a great star in Joe Pesci but many episodes got bogged down with the antics of Bubba Smith and Dick Butkus.

Here’s the thing, though.  The show was always interesting, specifically because it did star Joe Pesci.  There was something undeniably fun about having stolid TV actors — like Robert Reed and Dick Van Patten — appearing opposite a combustible force of nature like Joe Pesci.  Though there were a few times that Pesci did seem a bit bored with going through the detective show motions, he was still a force of chaos and, by his very presence, he made Half Nelson into something more than just another generic crime show.

Next week, we start Freddy’s Nightmares!

4 responses to “Retro Television Reviews: Half Nelson 1.9 “Beverly Hills Princess”

  1. I had to suffer through a movie in which Toni Collette played a woman playing a man playing a drag queen (Connie and Carla).
    (Who am I kidding, I actually liked it, and she also got to sing).

    Farewell, Rocky!


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